I’m going to take a break from blogging about Jane Austen this week and write about something more personal. Fifty years ago today, my mother, Ruth Candler Lovett, died of breast cancer. She was twenty-nine years old. I was two. That’s her with her two brothers when she was a little girl. For a long time I knew very little about her. On rare occasions my father would tell a story. My sister had an airbrushed formal portrait in her bedroom. But for the most part, I went on and lived my life as if she had never been there. For many years, when people would express sympathy after finding out about my mother’s death, I would brush off their concern. “I was so young,” I would say, “I don’t remember her. I never really knew her.”
Then came the day when I had a two-year-old of my own and I realized how much a child of two really does know a parent and how profound the loss of that parent could be. About this time I was entering a MFA program in creative writing. In my second semester I chose to work on memoir writing, and I began crafting what would become my first non-academic book: Love, Ruth A Son’s Memoir. I set out on a quest to find out about my mother—not just the buried details of her short life, but how she intersected with people, what made her laugh, who she really was.
It was a journey that introduced me to people I had never met (friends from her high school, distant relatives) and took me places I had never been. I tried to remain totally open-minded as I visited a psychic and submitted her handwriting for analysis. I uncovered school and medical records, wrote letters (this was in the pre-email days) to scores of people who had known her (I received my most recent reply a few months ago, almost twenty years after my initial query), and pored over troves of family pictures.
The book I wrote, which was both a part of and the ending of this journey, was published by a tiny non-profit group in Atlanta, where Ruth lived most of her life. Most of the copies are probably still in boxes in their attic. Maya Angelou kindly wrote a blurb for the back cover and when she called me and read her words over the phone, I said to her, “You’re very kind,” to which she responded, “Well, you’re very good.” That simple sentence, more than any other, kept me in pursuit of the writing life, even through years when the rejection letters piled up.
In her short life, my mother gave me many gifts. She continues to give them to me. But one of the greatest of her gifts was the journey that led to Love, Ruth and the encouragement from a remarkable writer that delving with emotional honesty into a great loss led me to. Fifty years is a long time to remember someone you can’t remember. But I do.